This year Christmas was going to be a very different for me. The last three years I have been lucky enough to go on two week long trips that include many different countries. This year, I was able to have a family Christmas with my boyfriend and his family, but also able to travel to a new city! Cris and I decided that for New Years we would explore Berlin! I have to admit I was pretty excited, not only to finally visit one of my bucket list cities, but also because some of my friends would also be there for the New Year!
After hosting a very successful Thanksgiving, it was time to prepare for Christmas!
One of the first signs of Christmas in Malaga, is when the main shopping street, Calle Larios sets up its annual Christmas lights. It’s a big event when they turn the lights on, usually there is a concert among other things. The whole month of December this street is always packed from about 7 PM to 11 PM when the lights are on.
Now in Spain, Christmas Eve is known as noche buena. Families usually spend the day together preparing a special dinner. I have to be honest, I did miss my family’s traditions of putting the Christmas tree up, Christmas music, and Christmas cookies-I did break down one weekend and spend 5 euros on 9 ounces of real JIF peanut butter to make Peanut butter blossoms. However, spending time with Cris’ family and attempting to help cook (let’s be real, I was just eating olives the whole time) was pretty good too.
Things get interesting after dinner, instead of watching White Christmas, like my family does, all the young people go out and meet up with friends! I had difficulty explaining that in the U.S., this wouldn’t happen, not because my friends would be with their families, but literally EVERYTHING is closed Christmas Eve. There wouldn’t be a place to meet!
Then BOOM! We were on our way to Berlin! I literally couldn’t handle my excitement. I was SO ready to explore this city full of history! We were very surprised when we met up with the gal we were renting her flat from (Airbnb y’all is a great option!). She worked in a very hipster area…see for yourself:
It got even better more interesting when we arrived to the neighborhood. It was the area of East Berlin where families of the communist politicians and other political supporters lived. So the apartments were very nice, but there were also very dated. As our host explained to us, “Basically my neighbors are all old Nazi’s.” -Now I should say she was joking, but really they were supporters of the Nazi party and then of the communist regime later on.
One thing I have to say is OH LORD I have forgotten was real cold is. Thank goodness I quickly remembered how to layer clothes…but still being outside all day in the cold sucks. We quickly located a great restaurant with AH-mazing German food. As you can see below, we made off like bandits!
Since we really only had 3 full days, we had to make the most of it. So our first full day we woke up early to head to the suburb town of Potsdam. This town is famous for all the beautiful palaces the old German kings built during the 19th Century. The most famous palace is the Sanssouci Palace that was built by Frederick the Great to spend his summers. The palace is based off of the French style, Rococo. Frederick the Great loved everything french, he actually spoke better French than he did German! Even the name of the palace means “care-free” in French. What makes Potsdam so famous is that the town is covered in palaces.
However, Potsdam isn’t just famous for it’s palaces, it is also famous for a bridge. I don’t know if you have seen the new Tom Hanks film, Bride of Spies, BUT YOU SHOULD SEE IT. Potsdam makes an appearance! That is because this bridge, Glienicke Bridge, is where the exchanges of many spies during the Cold War. One of the most famous exchanges, what Tom Hank’s film is based on, is the exchange of the Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (caught in the US) for the US spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers. The bridge was the the boundary of East Berlin and West Berlin, and once the Berlin Wall was constructed it was off-limits to everyone except military personnel.
Now, I should explain the map of Germany during the Cold War. It’s a bit confusing because there is West Germany, East Germany, then West Berlin and East Berlin.
Yes, that last sentence is correct, the Berlin Wall was built to keep the population of East Berlin in East Berlin. West Berliners could enter and leave East Berlin as they wanted and with the correct documentation. The Soviet party reasoned that the Wall was needed to protect it’s people from the “fascists” who were preventing the creation of the socialist state. Construction of the Wall started in August of 1961, but it was earlier that summer that it was eluded that a wall was going to be build. During a press conference, a reporter asked the First Secretary, Walter Ulbricht, what they were going to do about all the East Berliner’s immigrating to West Berlin or outside of Germany-his response was “We are not going to build a wall.” um, who said anything about a wall? So the Berlin Wall was built and it became more and more difficult to cross the border.
It wasn’t until the 9th of November, during a press conference, that the press secretary accidentally let it slip that the border was going to be open. Say what? Now, none of this information was to be publicized until the FOLLOWING DAY…but no one informed the press secretary of this. So once his announcement became public, East Berliners began lining up at various check-points to be allowed to cross. However, no one informed the check-point guards, and when the crowd kept growing and growing, the guards just let the people through! Slowly the Wall came down and East and West Germany began reuniting, Germany became officially reunited on October 3, 1990.
One thing that I have to admit is that the Germans aren’t trying to hide their past. They are very willing to talk about it, and even admit to what had happened. This can be seen in the East Side Gallery, located by the river, which is an international memorial for freedom that has been created using the old Berlin Wall. It’s about 1 km long section of the wall that has been painted by many different international artists with the common theme of “freedom.”
As always, we did a walking tour of Berlin with the Sandeman’s tour company. I have done many tours with this company all over Europe, and I have never been disappointed. Berlin is full of historical sights-most importantly the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his youngest son, Blanket, out the window. You don’t remember? Here is a little refresher:
On a more serious note, this tour was awesome. Not only because it was full of amazing sights, but also our tour guide was AH-mazing. He had so much knowledge about Berlin and it’s history, and he has a talent of story-telling. The next stop on the tour was the Holocaust Memorial, or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. As you walk though the memorial the cement blocks are at all different heights. At one point, I was surrounded by the cement blocks, which were all taller than me.
Then we were off to the place I had been itching to see: The sight of Hitler’s underground bunker, or the Führerbunker. Honestly, before I describe it, I should show you what the sight looks like now.
Yep, its now an apartment complex and a little park where dogs do their daily business. I can’t help but laugh at that the irony of this. For those who don’t know, Hitler and his wife Eva committed suicide in the bunker before the end of the war. They were cremated in the garden above ground. Now why was this bunker so important? The last six months of Hitler’s life were in this bunker. In January of 1945, he went underground, and ran most of his operations from the bunker. It’s well known that at this point of the war, the Soviets were closing in on Berlin, but also Hitler was loosing it-mentally. He believed his own Nazi’s were trying to kill him, but this could have also been from the cocaine eye drops he was using. Once the Soviets invaded, they made sure to destroy all the Nazi landmarks they could, which included the bunker. However, it wasn’t until the construction of residential buildings (a scheme to make the landmark anonymous) that the remains of the bunker were destroyed or filled in.
With the same tour company, we also went on a tour that was about the Third Reich in Berlin. We saw many sights of important events, such as the Reichstag, the Propaganda building, and the old Jewish neighborhood. I have to toot my own horn because we did this tour in Spanish (We did all the other tours in English, so I had to give Cris a break), and I was able to follow along pretty easily.
I’m really glad we went on the Third Reich tour, not only because I learned a lot, but we got to see the old Jewish neighborhood. Without the tour, I don’t believe we would’ve made the journey out there. First off, the neighborhood is also the same neighborhood of Albert Einstein’s flat on Haberlandstraße. More importantly, the people of the neighborhood have placed signs that have different “laws” that were made to persecute Jews during the rise of the Third Reich. The government didn’t pay for these, the people of this neighborhood did. Which is another sign that the German people are willing to talk about this dark time in history.
We also did the Sachsenhausen Concentration camp tour with Sandeman’s tour group too. If you can’t tell by now, this company is truly that great! The camp is located just 25 minutes outside of Berlin. Like the camp of Dachau, it is just outside the little town. One of the first things we were told was that the houses that surrounding the camp were built for the Nazi’s and their families. Could you imagine living in a house that a Nazi had lived in? Even closer to the camp, but still enough distance to make it seem like there were two different worlds (that of the camp and that of the Nazi’s), was the housing for the Nazi guards.
Now, I should explain that Sachsenhausen was not the original “concentration camp” in the town of Oranienburg. Before this camp, there was a factory that the Nazi Party used before the war for political prisoners. Where was this factory located? Right in the middle of the town. Towns people passed it daily on their way to work or to the supermarket. The idea behind these factory prisons was that the hard labor would help the prisoner to change. So many prisoners that were sent to the factory were released after some time, after they had been “rehabilitated.” Once the Nazi party came to full power (and there were more “prisoners” to be “rehabilitated”), Hitler then decided to stop using old factories and breweries for the prisoners, and had the camps constructed.
Most of the original barracks were torn down after the war, but new ones to represent the old ones have been built. These are what house the 17 museums in the whole camp. Yes, there are about 17 different museums and exhibits, which means you could spend ALL day there. I’m so glad we went with the tour because it would have been very overwhelming to try to see everything and also learn about the camp. The barracks were like the other barracks in other concentration camps: bunks that were originally built for 3 people, but when the camp was over crowded anywhere from 9-12 people would share the bunk. Of course, you would want to be at the top where there was a lesser chance of catching TB or other diseases. There were also separate rooms for washing and toilets.
Sachsenhausen was one of the few camps that would “lend” their prisoners to outside companies for labor. Of course, there was enough money involved that was very profitable to the Nazi’s. The prisoners were also used to create fake British pound notes. The operation was called Operation Bernhard, and the plan was to over-inflate the British and American economies by introducing millions of fake notes into their economies. They were actually successful in introducing a million fake British 5, 10, 20, and 50 pound notes into circulation. It wasn’t until the British note changed after the war that all the fake notes were found.
There were also many famous political prisoners that were held here in separate barracks that were similar to a prison cell. However, this didn’t mean they were treated better, if anything they were treated worse than others. Outside of this barrack were three wooden posts standing in the ground. This was a new torture method the Nazi’s used. They would tie the hands of the prisoner on the back top of the post, just high enough that the prisoner would have to stand tip-toe. The prisoner would have to stand for hours, and with the position of their arms, if they were to lose balance or not be able to stand their shoulders would be pulled of their sockets. Pretty painful-if you scroll down to the second picture you can see it for yourself.
One of the more famous prisoners at the camp would be Georg Elser. Now, I know you are all thinking, WHO IS THIS PERSON? Well, he could have been the man who could have ended World War II even before it started, he could have stopped Hitler from gaining any power, basically he would have been a world hero. But HOW AMY? HOW? He was the one who tried to kill Hitler during on of his speeches at a beer hall in Munich. Yes, the key word was “tried.”
Georg knew that on November 8 and 9, the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch (where Hitler attempted a coup that failed back in 1923), Hitler would give a speech. So in 1938, he traveled to Munich to the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall, where the rally would take place, to check out the area. He decided the best option would be to place a bomb right behind the speaker podium. So, over the next year he spent his time gathering materials, making the bomb, and traveling to Munich to set up the bomb. November 8, 1939 arrived and Elser was ready, the bomb was ready, and Hitler had NO idea. However, unknown to Elser, Hitler had originally cancelled his speech so he could plan the war against France. He, however, changed his mind and decided to attend. Due to heavy fog, Hitler wouldn’t have been able to fly back to Berlin, so instead he decided to take his private train at 9:30. That meant that Hitler had to cut his normal speech time from 2 hours (8:30 PM-10:30 PM), to one hour (8 PM-9 PM), so Hitler could catch his train. Hitler gave his address and left the building by 9:07 PM….13 minutes before Elser’s bomb was to explode. By the time the bomb exploded, Hitler and his squad had safely left the area. However, the bomb killed 7 people and injured 63 people. Of course, when Hitler was told the news of the attempt on his life, he took it as a sign that “Providence” wanted him to “reach his goal.” What was his goal? To exterminate all those who were not of the “Aryan race.”
Elser was apprehended by boarder guards when he was trying to cross the Swiss border. When he was told to empty his pockets they found wire cutters, sketches of the explosive, and other bomb making materials, making him one of many suspects of the bombing. However, it wasn’t until the Gestapo interviewed many, many people and it was slowly put together that Elser made the bomb that he was tortured until he confessed. BUT EVEN AFTER HE CONFESSED AND DREW SPECIFIC DRAWINGS OF THE BOMB THE GESTAPO DIDN’T BELIEVE HE WAS THE ONLY CULPRIT. It wasn’t until after 1 year of torture at the headquarters that he was sent to Sachsenhausen as a protective prisoner. He was later sent to Dachau where he was executed on April 9, 1945-4 weeks before the end of the war in Europe.
ANYWAYS back to Sachsenhausen, as the tour continued we saw the main museum where many of the artifacts of the camp. Our tour guide told us to look for a piece of wood that looks like it is used to measure height. As I was walking through the museum, I was racking my brain of why in the world we needed to look at this. If it was just to measure height, then why was it so important?
If you look closely you can see that there is space between the two wood poles. You can see behind there is some wood on the back, but only on the bottom part of the measuring stick. On the upper region there is no wood. Why, you might ask? Well first we need to back up and explain some history.
Towards the end of the war, the Soviets were slowly making their way across the frontier, and surrounding Berlin. That meant there were many POW’s from each side. At this point in the war, both sides (the Germans and the Soviets) were lacking able men to continue the fighting. This meant the boys as young as 7 were being pulled to the front lines. In early 1945, 13,000 Soviet POW’s arrived to Sachsenhausen, when the camp was at it’s highest number of prisoners. Now, I should explain that Sachsenhausen was not a Death camp like Auschwitz. However, the Nazi guards are invented a new way to execute prisoners more effectively. If you haven’t realized it now, this new method involved the measuring stick above.
The POW’s were lead to a special area (called Station Z) away from the camp, where the Nazi’s had created a building that looked like a doctor’s office. The POW’s were led in one-by-one where a “doctor” (a Nazi officer or fellow prisoner) would start the examination. Lastly, the POW’s were measured for new uniforms (the POW’s were told that they would return to the front lines as Nazis). When the POW was lined up with measuring stick, a Nazi officer in a room behind the stick would fire a bullet through a hole in the wall and through the space between the stick, killing the POW instantly. The body would quickly be removed and the room would be cleaned, and another POW would be led in and the process would start again. Over 10,000 of the Soviet POW’s were killed in this method.
The building of the main museum was the kitchen for the camp. In the basement of the museum you can see the kitchen area. When the Soviets had control after the War, they used the camp as a political prison. The kitchen was used as a cell, and you can see the paintings of the prisoners. Some are quite amusing.
The last stop of the tour was the infirmary and “morgue.” I put the morgue in quotations because there were many experiments that went on in Sachsenhausen, and they would occur in the infirmary. One of the bigger experiments including the use of mustard gas. After WWI, the Germans were afraid of the use of mustard gas during WWII again. So many prisoners were used to see the effects of the gas in different forms of contact. Even one Nazi doctor experimented with different forms of cocaine, with hopes of increasing stamina and endurance, which would later be used by Nazi pilots or soldiers.
One thing that was very surprising was the amount of memorials within the camp. Of course there was one main memorial that can be seen from every part of the camp (It was built to “outshine” the main watch tower). There were also many personal memorials that the public have left as well, for the Soviet POW’s, for the political prisoners in the separate political prisoner barracks, and to all the prisoners who passed through the gates of the camp. I did find the main memorial very interesting. Here is a picture of it:
Notice that all the triangles are red? Well, there was a ranking system within the prisoners. When each prisoner arrived to the camp they were given a colored triangle to represent why they were sent to the camp. Yellow was for Jewish prisoners, pink for homosexual prisoners, red for “communists” (anyone against the Nazi party), and purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now this memorial is called “Liberation,” and is in memory of the political prisoners that spent time in Sachsenhausen. There is some controversy…Originally the camp was to hold just political prisoners, however as the war continued more and more prisoners were put in the camp. This memorial ignores all the other prisoners who wore the other colored triangles.
I honestly could have spent two full days at Sachsenhausen, but a las we didn’t have time. Although I enjoyed every part of the trip, the best part was being able to meet up with my friends Choshi and Eric. We only got to spend New Year’s Eve with them, but it was so much fun. We met for dinner and rang in the New Year at their Airbnb. It was a great way to end our amazing trip. However, I don’t suggest catching a plane on January 1st…let’s just say it was a rough flight for the both of us.
I am already itching to go back to Berlin because I know there is so much more to be seen! However, I think it will be in Spring or early Summer when it isn’t SO cold! Until then, stay warm! HASTA LUEGO!